13 actually effective ways to handle difficult/awful/frustrating coworkers

I wrote an article for BuzzFeed about 13 actually effective ways to handle your most irritating coworkers — from know-it-alls to the person blowing up your phone with texts — without making things tense or awkward (hopefully). It has fun graphics! You can read it here.

The piece pulls content from my new book, which you can buy at Amazon (paid affiliate link), Barnes & NoblePowell’sBooks-a-MillionIndieBoundTarget, or anywhere books are sold. (In the UK: Amazon UK or  Waterstones. In Australia: Booktopia or Mighty Ape.)

{ 75 comments… read them below }

  1. Greengirl*

    I love the advice on dealing with negativity in coworkers. I worked in a place that had become a bit toxic and found that “what will you do about it?” was a great way to shut down complaining. Because a) either it’s worth doing something about or b) you need to just deal with it or c) as I finally told my coworker after I had lost my patience “either do something about it, or work hard, keep your head down, build your resume, and GET OUT”. Because complaining endlessly was not actually helping anything.

    1. Irene Adler*

      I used the “so when’s your doctor’s appointment?” comment after hearing one co-worker’s endless complaining about her health. Makes her angry when I do that.

    2. Jennifer*

      Hah. Well, the things complained about in our office are ones we literally can’t do anything about and nobody can get another job, so I don’t think saying that would help.

      But that said, I got bitched out for being negative, so I just don’t speak any more. Works for all!

    3. The Original K.*

      My first full-time job was not quite toxic but pretty bureaucratic, and it could be hard to navigate. There was one guy who complained about it ALL THE TIME. Of the group of four of us who were “work friends” (two of us became real friends) he’s the only one who is still there over a decade later, and according to my friend who keeps up with him on social media, still complaining about the job.

      1. Irene Adler*

        Isn’t that funny? Today I offered to assist a co-worker who had been complaining every day for weeks about how she has so much to do. She turned me down.

    4. Jessen*

      My problem was always that the complaining coworkers had a long list of what EVERYONE ELSE needed to change in order to solve the problems. Their jobs would be perfect if everyone else did things their way.

  2. Long Time Reader, First Time Poster*

    Re: coworkers that comment on your food — when a colleague and I were returning from the cafeteria with our lunches, another colleague announced as we walked in: “Hmm, salad [indicating my friend’s lunch], and potato chips [indicating mine]”.

    I looked him in the eye and asked “your point??” in a less than friendly tone.

    He just shrugged and wandered off, but at least he’s stopped shaming my lunches.

    1. Let's Talk About Splett*

      At a previous company, another dept had an invitation-only treat club where they would rotate bringing in treats for each other (usually donuts or bagels). Note: I would have declined to be in the treat club if I’d been asked since I took the bus to work and it would have been too inconvenient for me.

      One day I saw a coworker with a donut in our shipping room, and I commented, “Oh, that looks good!” just to be polite, and she said, “You can’t have any. It’s only for the people in the treat club.” Okay?

      1. annakarina1*

        That sounds so childish of her, like some exclusive club and being territorial over freakin’ donuts.

        1. Allison*

          Maybe, but I wonder she’d gotten tired of people asking her where she got it, and assumed there were treats somewhere or that maybe she brought some in and could spare one for a hungry coworker, and she felt like she had to say something up front when someone mentioned it. That said, there were nicer ways to say that, like “yeah it’s pretty yummy! A few of us have a treat club going and we take turns bringing in baked goods.”

  3. Catabodua*

    UGH. My negative co-worker is my direct report. It’s so draining dealing with her.

      1. Catabodua*

        You’d think that was true… but most deflection tactics just turn on you unexpected ways.

        For example, giving her feedback about trying to be less negative leads to complaints with HR that I’m telling her not to mention problems or that I’m ignoring her concerns.

        Plus she has a willing contingent of other workers who love to listen to her bitch, join in, and then they all rile each other up about things they didn’t care about 5 minutes ago.

        1. bunniferous*

          That is so toxic. You may be already doing this but you might start requiring her to bring you at least one possible solution for every complaint she makes.

          1. E*

            Or frame it as she should be spending her time focusing on her work. If the complaining is pointed out as time she should be spending on her projects, that’s easier to turn into a PIP. It’s not denying or accepting whether her complaints have merit but rather pointing out her higher priority is to do her job.

        2. McWhadden*

          Yeah, it’s very hard for a supervisor to talk about negativity without an employee hearing “I just don’t care about your issues with work.” And other employees seeing it that way too. I know that’s not what you are saying. I know the attitude is draining for all and infectious. It’s totally something that should be addressed. And it’s totally unfair on you. But it’s the reality.

          I’m sorry you’re going through it.

        3. Artemesia*

          She is then very successfully undermining you as a supervisor. Letting her win may have long term consequences for you.

          1. Catabodua*

            Oh, it’s a whole tangled web thing. I’m just the most recent person who supervises her. She’s been passed around to others and no one seems to be able to get anywhere because the person who can actually make the decision on discipline and/or termination is not interested in doing anything because they don’t directly deal with her and they are hoping she leaves when she’s eligible to retire next year.

            I’d also be fine, thrilled really, if they let me go back to being a high level individual contributor vs a manager.

            1. Danger: Gumption Ahead*

              I worked in a similar situation and handled it by asking the person to write out each complaint in detail. Then I sat down with them and figured out what the steps were to addressing the issues and who to contact first. Then I told her as a manager I fully supported her in her efforts to find solutions to these issues and to come to me if she needed any assistance and that I would let HR know that I was empowering her to investigate and propose solutions to these problems in case there was pushback.

              She didn’t stop complaining to others, but she did stop complaining to me and escalating since I assigned her to try and figure out ways to solve the issues

              1. Catabodua*

                I’m curious about this because the majority of the complaints are about me, not about the work or a process. Example: I won’t approve a vacation day during a blackout period. There really isn’t anything to figure out or support her on.

                1. tangerineRose*

                  Then does she complain to HR that you want her to stop complaining because you won’t approve a vacation day during a blackout period? Because if HR is annoyed with you instead of her for something that is clearly her problem, that’s gotta be frustrating.

              2. Catabodua*

                Actually for that example she won’t complain to HR – just everyone else who’s willing to listen to her. It’s a good example of something that will get a whole bunch of folks riled up over nothing.

  4. Amber Rose*

    Do you have a script for a coworker freaking out about management spending money?

    We are apparently the new owners of a very large piece of machinery, and when I asked the purchaser to get us some safety gear for it she kind of panicked about how expensive it was and whether all the managers knew about it or not and if they would fight about it.

    It was a shock to me just how upset she was and her assumption that it was just a unilateral move on someone’s part (hasn’t happened before). I was a little upset anyway because this thing is my responsibility now (whyyyyy) but it’s not that big of a deal otherwise. We needed one, and they chose to buy instead of rent. IMO they got a good deal on it too.

    I couldn’t say anything but should I have?

    1. Irene Adler*

      I would have asked her why is she concerned about this.
      Seems to me she’s into fomenting drama -even when the opportunity isn’t really there.

    2. Princess Scrivener*

      Safety gear is less expensive in the long run than operating equipment without it! Leadership bent on good risk management won’t care how much preventive measures cost. I woulda absolutely said something.

      1. Amber Rose*

        She’s not really worried about the safety gear in particular. More just, she was really upset about the purchase of the expensive machine, and then the fact that the safety stuff for it is just another set of fees on top of it.

        But I mean, I just calmly asked why the thing, and got an extremely reasonable answer, so her level of sheer panic over it before even asking any questions was kind of bizarre.

    3. Michaela Westen*

      It sounds like someone had given her hell previously in a similar situation. I might ask why she’s so upset, and then she might explain.

    4. MissDissplaced*

      I would ask why this purchase disturbs her. Either she was yelled at in a similar situation, or there is something about the corporate finances troubling her. I’ve been in a similar situation where I was asked to pay very large invoices without real clear documentation on the spend and (I suspect) there were some kickbacks going on.

  5. Bones*

    I have a “most recent person hired is incredibly bossy and is telling workers who have been there longer than her how to do their jobs (and is sometimes wrong” and it’s SO FRUSTRATING

    1. AnitaJ*

      I had that and it was really irritating. At one point she walked over and insterted herself into a conversation I was having with my boss and answered the question he was asking me directly. He walked away and I looked at her for a beat, kind of astonished, and just said “Susan, I was dealing with that myself.” She fell over herself apologizing but I think my being flabbergasted in the moment helped her back off a bit. So, I hear you, Bones!

    2. annakarina1*

      At an old job of mine, I was frustrated with my supervisor seemingly unable to do his job properly and freaking out over any errors or mistakes, and I resented being hired as his assistant and wished I could just take his job instead, since I felt I was more qualified than he was. But I was in no position to actually act that arrogant on the outside, and in no way would tell people how to do their jobs when I just got hired in a lower-level position.

    3. TardyTardis*

      I had a coworker like that, and worse yet, my supervisor dang near fell in love with her–and of course the new co-worker was so busy ‘supervising’ everyone else, I had to take on some of her work and then get ragged–by her–for some fairly minor mistakes. Fortunately my supervisor’s boss put a stop to it when it was clear the co-worker was manipulating my supervisor for expensive personal privileges (while I covered for her work, of course).

  6. NicoleK*

    Any tips or scripts on how to handle a needy, high maintenance coworker? She needs so much hand holding that it’s draining to work with her. She’s been with the company for 5 years but receives as much support as a new hire on the job for 8 months. Going to the boss won’t help. Our boss is her main enabler.

    1. CS Rep By Day, Writer By Night*

      Just want to say I feel you – I’m in the same situation and it makes me nuts. She’s been here 3 years but that’s more than enough time to be up to speed. Everyone else on our team (even one person who hasn’t been here as long as she has) is highly skilled and efficient, and we’ve all had it with taking turns being her caretaker. So frustrating!

    2. Fabulous*

      “We’ve been over this several times. How about you find your notes on the process so you can follow them.”
      “Why don’t you take some detailed notes this time so you can refer to them when you have questions. I can’t be available to walk you through it every time.”
      “This is something you do every day. What can we do to help you remember this going forward?”
      “Sorry, I’m busy right now, but Boss can help you.”
      “What have you tried so far?”
      “Can you remember what the first step is? What’s the second? … See, you know this!”

      1. Artemesia*

        If boss won’t deal with it by firing her then. make sure she is pushed to boss for hand holding.

    3. Teal Green*

      All the sympathy here. My needy coworker has been here over a year and needs more hand holding than the new hire who has only been here 2 months. Our boss is also an enabler and thinks needy coworker is doing a great job. Boss has outright said to me that they ignore negative feedback about needy coworker because they don’t think it’s accurate.

  7. Anon for this*

    Heeee. #8 is somewhat topical this week. There’s a big (anonymous) to-do on our intranet forums about people who wear too heavy of scents.

    In this case I don’t think the poster knows whose scent is the problem – but whoever it is, it’s so strong that it’s in the elevator after they are not. And we are a large company – depending on which office this is at, there could be hundreds of people (including clients and vendors) using that elevator.

    How would you recommend handling that sort of situation? (Assuming it’s annoying or uncomfortable but not disabling – I’m assuming if it was triggering disabling asthma attacks, you could approach HR and ask about ADA accommodations.)

    1. CatCat*

      So the complaint is that there is lingering scent in the elevator and it’s annoying? I’d let that one go.

      1. aes_sidhe*

        If it’s so strong that it lingers for a long time, that is a LOT of perfume in a confined space. I’m extremely sensitive to perfume, and it can cause my asthma, hives, and/or allergies to act up. The person doesn’t have to be in the immediate vicinity for a reaction. I had a coworker who was also sensitive to perfume, and it would give her a migraine.

      2. The New Wanderer*

        Yeah, I’m not sure there’s much that can be done as long as perfume and scents are allowed.

        Just recently I was waiting for an elevator in an office building and two women walked up and stood near me, talking to each other. When the elevator opened it was empty so we got right on. One of the women turned to me and said “Oh your perfume is really nice!” I said, “I don’t wear any, I guess it’s just in this elevator?” It lingered enough that the previous occupant had been off for at least 10 seconds and it was still strong enough to be noticed, which makes me wonder how eye-watering it would be to ride in the elevator with that person. As it was, if any of us had been sensitive it probably would have been enough to trigger a reaction.

    2. Ama*

      Ugh, I sympathize because my office is in a very large office building with a lot of tenants — and apparently a lot of people in some of the other offices smoke (for some reason this wasn’t a problem in our last office building, or maybe the ventilation in those elevators was just better). I have a mild allergy to cigarette smoke (it causes headaches) and there are times I hop in the elevator only to find it reeking because a bunch of people just came back in from their smoke break. But there’s not much I can do other than try to sniff before I get on the elevator and wait for the next one if the smell is too strong.

      I think until someone knows for sure who the offender is that may be the best course of action.

    3. MissDissplaced*

      My company specifically day No Heavy Perfume, but does not ban scent completely. I do wear a light body spray type scents. I don’t know if it’s ever come up, but I assume if came up you’d be asked to stop wearing it. It’s kind of hard though ss the wearers become nose blind to even the strongest scents.

  8. beanie beans*

    These are great! And I love the photos!

    Good timing as I had to have an awkward conversation with a coworker today and it went fine and nobody died. A reminder that direct conversations are usually the best way to resolve issues!

    1. NotAnotherMananger!*

      Avoid, and, to the extent you can’t avoid, discuss nothing but work/deadlines in a very matter-of-fact and just-the-facts kind of way.

      (I have about two decades of asshole-related experience, and minimizing contact is generally all that works.)

  9. Elizabeth West*

    Ha, I saw this earlier today and as soon as I saw the title, I checked the byline and went, “YEP!” :)

    I spend waaaaayyy too much time on Buzzfeed. But how else will I know which Avenger will take me to prom based on how I design my dream house? Or what kind of avocado toast I am?

    1. deets*

      I started reading it, was surprised at the high quality of the advice, and THEN scrolled back up to read the byline. Sometimes Buzzfeed surprises me. :-)

    2. Gazebo Slayer*


      I’ve never really had more than one category for avocado toast…? It’s really good topped with radishes and sea salt, though.

      I am now having a fantasy in my head where I am back at my high school prom, except Steve Rogers is my date and we are having avocado toast (with radishes tyvm) to go along with the fizzy punch in the champagne fountain. Thank you.

      1. Gazebo Slayer*

        Oh I forgot. Lemon juice. Lemon juice is absolutely essential to avocado toast with radishes.

  10. Goya de la Mancha*

    I have a very hard time with number 3 – mostly because what I consider overly nosy, most people consider polite conversation. It’s not too personal to ask me what I’m making copies of at work (especially since it SHOULD be work related), there’s just no logical reason as to why said co-worker needs to know. I generally want to snap back with ” Surveillance photos of you and your wife”, but I think that might land me in the HR office :-p

    1. Jennifer Thneed*

      You can tell outrageous fibs about what you’re copying without getting into HR territory, and it often gets the point across (eventually). Best if you give these replies as you keep walking…

      “Oh, I’m just copying the letter I got from the Nobel Committee. Did you hear I won the prize for using a copier?”
      “These are the project plans for a new branch office on Mars.”
      “Photos of my dogs. I’m testing to see if the actual dog goes thru the fax machine because it would be easier than driving them to the vet.”
      “Surveillance photos of that bench across the street. I’m trying to catch it in the act.”
      “It’s just the PO to authorize a trampoline for the breakroom.”

    2. Danger: Gumption Ahead*

      “I don’t know. Something the $BigBoss asked me to copy for them”

    3. tangerineRose*

      One way to get people to stop asking might be to tell the asker, in great detail, what you’re copying, why you’re copying it, and any other details that might somehow be relevant that the person isn’t likely to want to know.

    4. TardyTardis*

      And some people should be more careful about what they leave in copiers…I never gossiped about what I occasionally found, but I picked up on a few things I had no idea were going on.

  11. NotAnotherMananger!*

    My boss is the queen of #6 – she calls it the “negative option” and assumes it that, if you can’t be bothered to respond, you’re abdicating your decision-making/input to her. Occasionally, someone shows up to complain or to put the brakes on something, but, 85% of the time, it’s highly effective and non-controversial. (It’s also a lot harder to complain if you had a week to pipe up and chose not to respond.)

  12. aes_sidhe*

    I had to ask a coworker to please stop doing 2 things:

    1. Sucking her teeth all. day. long.
    2. To just eat her almonds as opposed to taking a bite of one almond (which made a loud pop noise), sit there for a few seconds, bite into again, repeated as necessary until she finished it.

    I just told her it was distracting, and she said she wasn’t even aware of doing it but that her own family had talked to her about it.

  13. sometimeswhy*

    Oh my stars and staplers, the picture on number 11 is better than aromatherapy.

    1. Localflighteast*

      I love the pencil on the lip picture…will ad.ot I’ve been caught doing similar stuff :)

  14. Close Bracket*

    I would love to see a collection of strategies for dealing with the charming asshole. I have known too many (really just a few, but any number greater than zero is too many) people who used all the right words, got along with everyone, were actually quite personable, and were evil and rotten to the core. Ignoring them was not possible because they directly harmed me by ruining my reputation and getting me removed from projects. In one case, it was behind my back and I only heard about it because I had an ally. Another person screwed me over to my face before going on to finish the job behind my back. I wanted to shut her down in the moment, but I just didn’t know how without seeming like the jerk myself because she was “just trying to help”. In both cases, these people were superior to me by level and length of tenure. In both cases, they were more highly trusted by higher ups than I was.
    Before anyone jumps in with, “if a problem is repeated, then you must be the source,” I am not the only person who identified these people as snakes. I see strategies for dealing with annoyances like the above and strategies for dealing with obvious assholes like people who yell and scream or are racist or otherwise egregious, but I never see strategies for dealing with the absolute charmer who is really just a rotten bastard.

    1. CurrentlyLooking*

      I had a coworker like that once. Eventually his incompetence caught up to him and he was fired but not after doing some serious damage to mine and others reputations.

    2. MerciMe*

      Mmm, depends on the environment, I think. If your management is good and supportive, have a frank conversation with them about what you think you’re seeing and ask for advice / how they’d like you to go forward.

      Less supportive managers, I’d take a very restrained “just wanting to see Aethelreda succeed and worried something is wrong and/or she will sabotage herself” approach.

      Even less supportive, I’ve survived similar character assassination attempts by bending over backwards to be polite and helpful, while extensively documenting our interactions. People like that… If they’re redeemable, you’ve done a good thing. If they’re not, they’ll stab themselves in the foot, sooner or later. And if they come after you, you can prove that you are absolutely squeaky clean. But at that point, I’d seriously think about getting a different job, rather than risk your health and happiness.

      1. WannaAlp*

        Yes to all the above. To elaborate further…

        Documentation is a key component. If the charming snake is in the habit of verbally communicating things that come back to bite you, you can create your own documentation, for example emailing them afterwards with wording like “Just to check I understood you correctly from our conversation earlier, you suggested that …”.

        Also being squeaky clean includes not just being polite and helpful but also in terms of what you do, workwise. Don’t leave them any loopholes to attack you with, e.g. from things you didn’t get done, or things you did that should have been someone else’s work, or from working in a less than solid fashion.

        This won’t prevent everything (you can’t stop them saying stuff behind your back and you can’t control other people’s responses to their shenanigans), but it will help. Also it puts you in the best position for if/when you need to leave that job and flee the snakes.

        1. MerciMe*

          Emails are the bomb. “That’s a really good idea. Can you send me an email though so it can’t slip my mind?”

          Also, strategic praise. Are they doing anything that genuinely makes your life better? Let them know you noticed it and loop in their manager. Make yourself more valuable as a good-faith ally than as a pawn.

          1. TardyTardis*

            Emails are your friend. I once had a supervisor who kept changing her mind on what she told me–till I made sure she backed it up with an email. Funny how her memory improved after that.

  15. Marion Ravenwood*

    Definitely going to put #6 and #7 into effect immediately. Although: does anyone have any suggestions for whether you should do this differently if the person in question is higher up in the organisation than you (although not your direct supervisor)?

  16. Michaela Westen*

    When it’s someone higher up not answering my emails, I ask my boss how to handle it. Take notes for documentation. I also do this with people who may not be higher up, but I don’t know them well or at all.
    I think with #7 also asking your boss how to handle it is a good idea. Then your boss will know this person is trying to direct you and can take whatever action they like. :)

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